Last night I came across a barrier I was never asked to cross before when it came to being involved in grassroots activism or participating in a social movement. For two and half years, I’ve been involved with organizing and rallying students behind Governor Corbett’s drastic attacks on public education and public higher education, local grassroots meetings and organizations rallying around environmental causes – the destruction of Pennsylvania’s environment because of fracking in particular, the “Occupy” movement and the education crisis in Philadelphia. I was a sympathizer for those who were attacked by Governor Walker’s assault on public sector unions, for those who camped out for weeks on end Tahrir Square and the Indigados in Spain fighting against massive attacks on their social safety nets. But last night’s meeting with “Put People First! PA” – a grassroots initiative that is inspired by our peers in Vermont – was different. The organization’s tenets revolves around creating a society that has transparency, participation, accountability, equity, and, most importantly, universality – a system that accepts everyone, whether they are a middle class worker or an undocumented citizen. It is a start of a small, but new, campaign working to organize those who are impoverished and disenfranchised by our political system.
Going into last night’s organizing meeting, and most grassroots meetings, I had my skepticism about the organization because of how new it is. Before I went to the meeting, I have heard that one of the main organizers, Mitch Troutman, was involved with organizing the international students working at the Hershey factory last fall. It was the first time these students walked off the job because of the poor working conditions they didn’t sign up for. Then during the meeting, I found out that the other organizer,Nijmie Dzurinko, who was the executive director with the Philadelphia Student Union – a group that I have reached out to during Corbett’s prior budgets that eviscerated education spending – and co-founded the Media Mobilizing Project. When the meeting began, my doubts about the organization changed pretty quickly when the 20 activists who showed to the meeting had to respond to a simple but powerful question: “When was a time you stood up for yourself.” I was surprised by the question because it was never a way that any organizing meeting I have ever gone to began. I was meet with my own resistance, like many others, to answer the question but it was an effective barrier to entry. From that moment in the meeting I was sold.
Looking back on the question, I may have answered it selfishly or not in a way that I would have wanted to. I told a short anecdote about how I was at Occupy Wall Street on New Years Eve and participated in militant actions that involved ripping police barricades, which surrounded the park, out of the hands of officers who resembled “storm troopers.” My reasoning for telling the story was that it allowed me to cross a threshold that I have never crossed prior to that time. Other stories included an activist whom I vaguely know through the anti-fracking movements describe how he was suspended in high school for creating an underground press publication, or how someone stood up to an employer and asked about receiving compensation over tasks they weren’t being paid for at work, or having to grow up in a racially divided Harrisburg during the Civil Rights Era and living through that history. Each of the stories varied from person to person, but it laid out the groundwork for the rest of the meeting.
Our next item on the agenda included breaking off into two separate pairs spending 3 minutes discussing our experiences with health insurance and public transportation – two items that are not up to par with those living in the state. Again, this was another effective organizing technique to build bonds of solidarity with those in the group, but on a more intimate experience. Discussing these issues, I found out that my experiences were shared with those who I have talked to or with someone they knew. I haven’t been on a private health insurance plan since my early teens. I grew up on CHIP and spent time on welfare, receiving health insurance until I was no longer eligible. It’s been two years since I have had any health insurance, and it is most likely I’ll be one of the 700,000 Pennsylvanian’s who won’t be insured because of the Governor’s decision not to take free money from the federal government’s expansion under Obamacare. The need for an adequate public transportation system is something that affects all of the urban and rural working class people in our state. My partner in the exercise explained that because of his disability in his “driving leg” he is unable to get around the city of Harrisburg efficiently because the transit system only operates during peak hours. I can relate to his experience because on a daily basis I see those with disabilities try to maneuver their work schedule around their doctor visits, but because of the inefficiencies of Harrisburg’s transportation system, the burden is placed on them to cut hours at work to make a simple hospital visit.
Our last item on the agenda revolved around separating into groups of three and spend 5-7 minutes discussing questions on: what makes an adequate committee size, how to outreach to members, how to build relations with the community and how to be an effective committee. After the brainstorming session, we had to present our ideas to the whole room in general.
After spending a couple hours meeting completely new strangers and talking about our real life situations, the efforts of this organization has the potential of growing into something substantial. I haven’t felt the type of energies or emotions in a room or meeting since the early happenings of Occupy Wall Street. It may not erupt into something very large or popular as Occupy Wall Street did, but it will grow depending on the dedication of those willing to role up their sleeves and do the dirty work of laying out the infrastructure for a vision that many may not think is achievable.
Sean Kitchen is an Assistant Editor and Social Media Organizer for Raging Chicken Press. He is student at Kutztown University.